Before we look at what the Bible says about the church I'd like to review several of the most popular misconceptions that people have concerning the Christian church.
Misconception #1 - The church is a building
This is the most common idea about the church - that it is simply a structure. People say, "I go to the church on Main St." or "Where is your church located?" They see the church as a thing, a place, a type of architecture devoted to a religious function.
Misconception #2 - The church is a human organization
Another name for this is denominationalism. In other words, the church is a group of people that are identified by a certain "brand" name. For example, Catholic church, Protestant church, Baptist or Pentecostal church. Each group has its characteristics, traditions, even styles of architecture for its buildings that identify and distinguish them from other "churches" or groups.
Misconception #3 - All churches are the same
This idea is based on the notion that one church is as good as the other because they're all doing the same thing, serving the same God. It's like McDonalds and Burger King, different names, different brands, but basically the same type of fast food restaurants serving the same food. When we examine what the Bible says about the church however, we see what the church really is and how inaccurate these misconceptions really are!
The Church in the Bible
The surest way to have the correct picture of the church is to consult the Bible. After all, the one who started the Christian church (Jesus) and the ones who established it in the first century (the Apostles) are all recorded in the New Testament part of the Bible. If we want to know about the church, therefore, we need to consult the source book for information about it - the N.T. So let's deal with the misconceptions first:
#1 - The church is a building
Although most of the public worship of the church takes place in a building (even one that has a special type of architecture), the building itself is not a church. The church building is only a building used by the church.
#2 - The church is a human organization
Although the church is organized it is not like a human organization. It has structure but is not identified like other groups that have certain names and compete with other groups for position and power.
#3 - All churches are the same
This misconception presupposes that there are many types of churches and that they basically all fulfill the same purpose. The Bible, however, teaches that there is really only one church and it doesn't compete or divide over itself.
Now the simplest way to describe the church is to identify what the original word for church referred to. We know that the N.T. was originally written in the Greek language and the Greek word translated into the English word "church" was the word "ekklesia." This word was a combination of two expressions: To call, Out of. So the word literally meant "those who are called-out or gathered."
Among the Greeks it referred to a body of citizens "gathered" to discuss the affairs of state. It has also been translated into the English words "assembly" and "congregation." Jesus first uses the word "church" in Matthew 16:18 when He says, "I will build my church." When Jesus begins using this word He is referring to His disciples.
- He will "call out" disciples.
- He will build His assembly.
- He will build His congregation.
So, from the very beginning the church always referred to people, not buildings or organizations. Of course the church was not just any assembly, gathering, or congregation of people: The church was the assembly of people who were disciples of Jesus Christ. Or, you could say it this way: The church is the gathering of all those who are saved by faith in Jesus Christ.
The key thing to understand therefore is that the church is made up of people who have been saved and follow Jesus Christ as Lord. In the book of Acts, Luke describes this process when he recounts how Peter was preaching about Jesus, His death and resurrection, and encouraging people to believe. Observe how Luke describes the formation of the church in this process.
36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off —for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
- Acts 2:36-41
Note how people become members of the church. The Gospel is preached. Those who believe and are baptized are saved (just as Jesus said they would be in Mk. 16:16). They are added (joined to) the existing assembly (church) who have already been saved.
So, not a building; not an organization you can join; not one of many - but a group of people who have been called out of disbelief to belief in Jesus Christ and assembled together as one group.
Now this group exists on a worldwide basis as all those in history here on earth who have become Christians - these are the church. And on a smaller scale, Christians who gather in local congregations in various places for worship and service - these also are the church. At its most basic level however, the church in the Bible refers to those who are saved by faith in Jesus Christ and obey His word as faithful disciples. And this is the church even if:
- They meet in an elaborate "church building" or someone's home.
- They call themselves by a specific "brand" name or use only the simple term Christian or disciple.
If you are a faithful follower of Jesus, you have been automatically added to His church, His assembly, His congregation.
Imagery of the Church
Now even though the basic concept of the church is simple, how it functions and the role it plays in God's plan is complex and quite exalted. In the N.T. there are literally dozens of metaphors used to describe the church and how God sees its position and attributes in the spiritual realm.
I've chosen only 20 of these to highlight the value and beauty God accords to the assembly, the congregation, the church. I've put these in the order that they appear in the Bible. Church list: #1-5, #6-10, #11-15, #16-20 So at its most basic level the church is the gathering of all those who are saved by Christ. But God also has an exalted view and function for the church which reflects its importance and key role in accomplishing God's will.
Note that these images are not meant to be "brand names" for different denominations, but rather ways to describe the many facets of the church's character and spiritual role in God's plan.
- Kingdom of Heaven - Mt. 3:2
- Kingdom of God - Mt. 6:33
- Church of God - Acts 20:28
- Church of Christ - Rom. 16:16
- God's Field - I Cor. 3:9
- God's Building - I Cor. 3:9
- Heavenly Jerusalem - Gal. 4:26
- Israel of God - Gal. 6:16
- Body of Christ - Eph. 1:22-23
- Holy Temple - Eph. 2:21
- Dwelling Where God Lives - Eph. 2:22
- Household of God - I Tim. 3:15
- Pillar and Ground of the Truth - I Tim. 3:15
- Mt. Zion - Heb. 12:22
- City of the Living God - Heb. 12:22
- Church of the Firstborn - Heb. 12:23
- Flock of God - I Pet. 5:2
- Golden Lampstand - Rev. 1:21
- New Jerusalem - Rev. 21:2
- Bride and Wife of the Lamb - Rev. 21:9
I could go for hours describing the significance of each of these names and references, but suffice to say that they demonstrate the unique and spiritual character/gifts shared by each individual who makes up the "church" that Jesus builds.
If you were to drive down any major street in any city you would soon notice that contrary to what the Bible teaches - there are many types of churches, not just one church as the Bible teaches. There are several reasons for this phenomenon:
1. Unbiblical foundation
The Bible determines what the church is, how it should function, how it needs to be organized, etc. Sure Jesus and the Apostles left all the information about the church in the Bible (and nowhere else) the Bible is the only legitimate blueprint or guidebook to establish and grow the church.
There are different "types" of churches because people insist on adding human ideas, traditions, teachings in the place of the Bible or in addition to the Bible. Every time you do this you create a variation of the original and with many changes and additions over the centuries there have also been a multiplication of the "types" of churches that come into being. For example:
- Show and explain patter.
- Have an original patter.
- If you follow it you will produce same thing over and over.
- If you change one thing you get variations, etc.
- Bible is the "pattern" for the church.
- If you follow its pattern you will produce the church of the Bible over and over in each generation and place.
- If you deviate you will create variation.
This is how new and different churches evolve. Another reason why there are different types of churches is...
2. People don't agree on the meaning of the Bible
It's not something that Christians like to admit, but there is often disagreement about the meaning and application of certain texts in the Bible. Unfortunately when two groups cannot agree on how to interpret or put into practice a certain teaching or passage of scripture, they form different groups in order to promote their point of view.
These separate groups often grow into separate churches with different identities and different traditions that have little to do with each other. This is why you have hundreds of different "types" of groups all claiming to be the "church" but having different practices and points of view on the variety of issues.
I believe that Jesus knew enough about human nature to know that this type of thing would happen in the church He was creating during His time on earth. This is why at the very beginning of the formation of the church, as He was calling out the very first disciples, He prayed for unity among His followers,
"Holy Father, you have given me your name; now protect them by the power of your name so that they will be united just as we are."
- Jn. 17:11B
According to the Bible, the church is united in its love, its beliefs, its organization, its practice, its worship and service. Paul explained it this way in the letter to the Ephesian church,
"Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father, who is over all and in all and living through all."
- Eph. 4:3-6
The pressure of division was already being felt in the 1st century church but Paul holds forth the ideal of the church given to him by God in Christ. So there is only one church and it is perfectly united and created according to God's plan and purpose. The pattern for that "true" church is in the N.T. and God calls on every Christian in every generation to follow His pattern in the task of establishing and building His church.
The New Testament Church
One of the things I am asked most often as a minister is, "What kind of church is the Church of Christ?" I serve a congregation of the church of Christ and so people are invariably curious and anxious to figure out what "type" or what denomination I and my church fit into. Of course this is normal considering what I've explained about churches in this lesson.
I tell people that the "Church of Christ" is a New Testament Church.
This means that our goal is to follow the "pattern" for what the church is contained in the N.T. as carefully as we can so we resemble that church. This is important because Jesus said, "I will build My church." Mt. 16:18, and in the rest of the N.T. describes what that church did, how it was organized, how it functioned, etc. Well, we want to be that church, nothing more or nothing less. Of course, we're not alone in this. There are tens of thousands of other churches around the world striving for the same thing and we are one with them.
Now, here's a disclaimer - have we achieved our goal of becoming that perfect model yet? NO.
- We don't understand everything in the scripture yet and we don't always agree with our brothers and sisters on everything.
- And we're sinners, imperfect people who don't always do the things we do understand.
But here's the motivation and encouragement to keep on going - this is the right target to shoot for as far as a church is concerned. Using only God's word to produce God's church - this is what a N.T. church does and how it is different.
So when you visit a church of Christ realize that you are in an assembly that tries to support all of its teachings and practices with the teachings and practices of the church found in the N.T. - no additions, no changes. We believe that this is the only way to accomplish the 3 main goals of the church given to it by Jesus:
- To reach and save the lost - Mt. 28:18-20
- To build His church (His way) - Mt. 16:18
- To create and maintain unity in the church - Jn. 17:11b
If you're not in the church then I encourage you to believe in Jesus, repent of your sins, and be baptized today so the Lord will add you to His glorious church.
Our next/last lesson will be, "The Christian Lifestyle."